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Kathleen Hanna and ‘The Punk Singer’ Director On New Doc, Riot Grrl and Why People Hate on Feminism

Kathleen Hanna and 'The Punk Singer' Director On New Doc, Riot Grrl and Why People Hate on Feminism

Making its debut in limited theatrical release and VOD on Friday, November 29 is “The Punk Singer,” Sini Anderson’s film about riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of Bikini Kill who went on to make music with Le Tigre and her current band The Julie Ruin.

In the nineties, Bikini Kill was one of the brightest stars in the riot grrrl movement, known for their fuck you attitude, vibrant self-made media culture, and criticism of the macho culture that surrounded them.

As a film, “The Punk Singer” goes to great lengths to contextualize the movement Hanna was a part of, the influence it had on music and women’s culture then and today, and brings us up to date to Kathleen’s contemporary every day concerns, including her battle with Lyme Disease.

We spoke to Hanna and Anderson in separate interviews about the film.

First up, Kathleen Hanna:

The thing that was in the back of my mind as I was watching the film, a
large part of the film is about how people were representing you and the
things you were doing and the things going on in your scene, and how
that was offensively or unfairly represented.  What is it like to now
have a film that tries to do something comprehensive about you?  Does it
feel right to be doing it now?

Yeah, I had two great feminist artists to work with, Sini Anderson
and Tamra Davis, and I trusted their judgement and their artistic
abilities.  For the first time, to have people document me and craft
sort of a narrative out of part of my story who got it.  Sini has very
much been in the same scene as I have for the past 25 years and Tamra
and I have also been friends for about 20 years.  We absolutely adore
each other.  Tamra has been a mentor for me at various times in my life
and really helped me out and got me confidence and stuff, and helped me
figure out how I fit in the world, and I could go on and on and on…I
love her…

It’s really different when it’s people you really care about who are
making a movie about you than it is when it’s some random person from
USA Today or whatever — but actually there was a lovely woman from USA
Today who interviewed me yesterday.  But you know, you’re in your
twenties, and you also don’t understand how the media works.  We thought
that you were supposed to get paid for doing interviews.  We didn’t
realize it was an advertisement in a way.  Let’s get real — it’s free
promotion for your project or your friend’s project.  We were in a lot
of magazines and lot of different places, but none of us had any money. 
We were like “How come Demi Moore has money, but we don’t have money?” 
We didn’t have managers, we didn’t have agents, we didn’t have
publicists.  We didn’t know how to parlay our cultural cachet into
money.  I think that was a bitter pill for a lot of people.  We had all
assumed, as many people do, that if you have your picture in the
newspaper, you must have enough money to own your own apartment. 

It’s really different when somebody who doesn’t know you — a lot of
the music writers back in the 90’s were jerky men who were just like
“Oh, she just needs to get laid!  That’s why she hates men!” or “Clearly
all these girls have been sexually abused and that’s why they hate
men.” “They have hairy legs!” “They wear short skirts and barrettes and
that’s so sexy and tantalizing!” “They’re confused about what they

Of course we were confused!  We were in our twenties!  But we were
making art about our confusion.  That’s what was really powerful, and
that’s what was missing from the narrative then.  Now, I just turned 45
three days ago.  I feel like now’s kind of the time when the narrative
has shifted.  The 90’s are back, so people are interested about Riot
Grrrl.  There aren’t people who want to beat me up anymore.  I’m older,
so I have publicists working with IFC who are working with the publicist
for my band.  I’m working with people so I’m not doing everything
myself.  So they’re weeding out anybody who’s going to Howard Stern me. 
I’m not planning on going on Howard Stern anytime soon, but it really
felt like back then that everyone was Howard Stern.  You had one Howard
Stern situation happen, and you’d think, “They’re all like that!,”
because you’re a kid.

To your point before, there were a lot of people that were assholes.

were learning how to say no.  We were like “No!” “No!” “No!”  It took
til my thirties to be able to say yes again.  And then I was like, “I
can say no to this, and yes to this and no to this, and I can say no for
three weeks because I just like hearing the sound of my voice saying
“No.”  (laughs)

Certainly a lot has changed since then.  On my bookshelf, I have a
Feminist Theory textbook that has the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in it. 

Yeah! Where’s my check for that?

And your papers are archived at NYU.  What does it mean that it’s now history, something to look back on?

It’s real!  It mattered! 

How does that feel?

people wanted to beat us up all the time, and when people from our own
community were like “How dare you speak for everyone?”  I wasn’t in
control of the media.  I was the lead singer of the band that was most
closely or heavily associated with the Riot Grrrl movement.  The media
loves to deal with just one person.  They don’t know how to deal with a
complex problematic community, where there’s a lot of divergent voices. 
That doesn’t fit in the amount of words they need.  I get that; I
understand that.  A lot of times the best way to tell a story is to pick
a person and to use their story as a way to explain this whole other
thing, and I get that.  But it kept being me who was being used to tell
this story.  Members of my own community were mad at me, boys in the
punk scene were like “You’re ruining everything,” and “You’re a bitch,”
and “You’re difficult.”  I’d ask for water at a show and it would be
like “Oh, she’s so difficult.”

So then I tried to be nice, and that didn’t work, so then I realized
I just have to be myself.  People have been like “Is it messed up
because this stuff is nostalgia?” Or “Is it messed up that you’re a punk
rocker and you’re joining the academic canon?”  I’m like “I wouldn’t
have lyrics if it weren’t for people like bell hooks.  I wouldn’t have
lyrics if it weren’t for people like Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith
Firestone, and other feminist writers.”  That’s where I got my lyrics
from, people that college people read.  Even when I wasn’t in college
and was like, I’ve always had one foot in the academic world.  I’ve
lectured.  What I wanted to do is take that and bring it to people who
maybe weren’t in the academic world, you know?

My sister and I were the first generation to go to college in the
family.  I felt really strongly about giving people access to the
feminist education I got, which was actually very nil, and I got a lot
of it outside of my college.  Unlike what people think, there wasn’t a
ton of women’s studies classes at Evergreen State College, that’s a
myth.  There was just one class — the Simone de Beauvoir “Second Sex”
class — that I took, and then there was an adjunct that taught women’s
studies classes. 

I love being in the canon.  I deserve to be there.  My work is good
enough to be there.  I didn’t want my archive to be in the basement of a
club that got flooded.  It was me saying to the world that my work and
the work of my friends and contemporaries actually mattered.  And also,
one of my best friends worked at the archive, and that’s how that
happened.  It might not have happened.

Even in the past few days or weeks, there have been things published
on the women about how women — famous women — are denying that they’re
feminists.   It seems like the word “feminism” has more meanings than
it’s ever had before.  Many people are afraid to identify themselves using that
word.  What interests you about the contemporary landscape of feminism
and cultural production?

I mean, my friend Tammy Rae said it best when she said that feminism
is a verb and not a noun, something you do not something you are.  I’ve
always defended men and women’s rights to use whatever words they want
to describe themselves, especially from the 70’s when there were a lot
of women of color who thought that feminism was an all-white movement
and there were certainly very racist pockets of all white feminist
groups, and some women of color wanted to use the term “womanists” or
“We want to call ourselves some other thing.”  I’ve always thought that
that makes sense, but what always upsets me is people who don’t call
themselves feminists because [they] don’t have hairy legs or [they]
don’t hate men.  Because then it just plays into stereotypes. 

I remember reading years and years and years again — I probably
shouldn’t say this, but it was in Vogue magazine.  It was when Le Tigre
was recording our last record in 2006 or something.  It still sticks in
my craw.  It was an interview with Gwen Stefani.  And I remember getting
Vogue specifically because we had been just doing this big press junket
for our last record even though we were recording our new one.  So I
was like I know we won’t be in this magazine, so I can get this
magazine.  Gwen Stefani was on the cover, so I was like, “Oh, she’s so
cute.  I’ll read the article about her, and find out her journey as a
female artist.”  And I start reading it, and she said this stuff about
Bikini Kill, and I was like “Seriously?” (laughs)  This is the one
magazine I thought I wouldn’t be in.

And she was talking about how in the Bay Area, there was all this
pressure to be a feminist, and she said “But I’m a girly girl.”  And I
was like “Wowww, there was so much pressure to be a feminist, and you
made billions and trillions of dollars.  And those of us who called
ourselves feminists are still trying to make rent.  What kind of
pressure actually was there?  Pressure from your brain?  From your
neighbor? Your dog?  Was it because my band was getting attention and
your band wasn’t in that ten minute time period?

I could be called a very girly girl some days too.  And that doesn’t
mean that I don’t consider myself a feminist.  I find that word
powerful.  I feel like being ashamed to be associated with people who
want to end oppression of everybody is sad. 

I don’t like it when high profile women — or high profile people —
reinforce those stereotypes.  You know it’s always especially sad when
it’s a woman because you want to believe that sisterhood is powerful. 
But it’s not always that way.

Certainly there are going to be people familiar with you or with
Bikini Kill or Le Tigre…people who were aware of things you were
involved with when they were happening.  But what excites you about
bringing this to people for whom this will be a discovery?  What about
people who are most likely too young to be around when Bikini Kill was

It feels great.  When I do lectures, a lot of young girls from 18
down to — God!  some guy brought a six year old to a lecture and I had
to shift down to make the lecture rated G ….

When girls listen
to Bikini Kill for the first time they’re like “This is for me.  This
was made for me.  I own this.”  And for a lot of the girls, specifically
those who listen to Bikini Kill, I’m 25 years forever.  That’s what’s
great about music.  I don’t have to re-record the music.  And with
Bikini Kill, I can be 25 forever, and with Le Tigre, I can be in my
thirties forever.  It makes me really excited, especially with the
archival material that’s in there, especially with Bikini Kill, because
with that material we really had to dig to get it.  It wasn’t like how
it is now.  Not everyone had camera phones.  You had to go to the Media
Room at your college and rent this huge Pak that you had to change every
few minutes.  To actually find the VHS tapes and to transfer them and
do all that work.  I’m really excited that those performances can live
on and I don’t have to reunite with the band.  You know what I mean? 
You know, if people want to see Bikini Kill, now I can say, “Go watch
the movie!”

And here’s what director Sini Anderson had to say about the film:

Why was it important for you to make this film now?

I feel
pretty strongly telling people’s stories while they’re still in their
careers and while they’re doing their work.  That’s especially true of
feminist work.  Even within our careers, we just disappear.  I knew
Kathleen wouldn’t disappear in the minds of people.  People haven’t seen
her work in a while.  We’re about 30 years from the start of 3rd wave
feminism and the start of riot grrrl.  That made telling her story
important.  I thought people could use the motivation.
with this film, I’m assuming there’s going to be a lot of people
discovering Kathleen for the first time.  How does that feel for you?

That’s happening at festivals — there’s a lot of people who come to
me at festivals saying “I didn’t know anything about this movement.” 
It’s totally inspiring to people.  For other people, for younger people,
it’s so cool to see how relevant it is to them.  The music still sounds
really amazing to them.  When I was 20, and I was thinking about my
parents’ music.  I was like “Gross! I hate that music!”  In this case,
the music sounds really good to them.  It still sounds good to me.  It’s
amazing to watch a younger generation of people be completely
motivated by the politics, the art, and also the fashion.  They kind of
light up.  Saturday night at DOC NYC, Kathleen did a Q&A afterwards,
and they gave her a standing ovation.  Afterwards, I couldn’t get to
her.  She was mobbed by these young women, and they were crying.  This
is great to see.  If you don’t make a documentary about somebody and
they kind of fade away, you don’t know their history.  On Saturday, I
was happy we had done all the work to make it happen.  For as hard as
its been to do this project, it was really great on Saturday.
How are you hoping this film contributes to feminist activism today?

Activism is a whole different thing right now.  It’s a whole
different thing from what it was when this story starts, in the early
90s in Olympia.  We do a lot of online activism, a story comes up and we
have something to be enraged about, but it’s gone in an hour or a few
hours or definitely the next day.  When we started the project, there
wasn’t much feminist noise being made.  While we were in production, the
Pussy Riot thing happened, the Slut Walks started, and the Sandra Fluke
thing happened . We started to hear young women and young male feminist
activists speaking up.  That was another motivating factor, we figured
people can use Kathleen’s story right now.  Activism has 20 year
cycles.  Kathleen’s story has a tendency to light a fire under people’s
You said making the film was difficult…can you elaborate on that?

I think making films is difficult.  We like to say we’re at a place
that we don’t need money to make a film.  It’s untrue.  It was really
hard to finish it and stay afloat. Going through production, it was like
“Where are we going to get the next hard drive?”  We didn’t have a
final edit as we were moving to completion, and that’s when Tamra Davis
came in and took on the final part of the edit.  It was totally
difficult, and I would totally do it again.  There are a lot of
people who worked really hard on it, and…I learned a lot of really hard
lessons. and I had to ask myself would you do this again?  The answer is yes.
How was it being responsible for telling Kathleen’s story?

Nobody had really heard it for the first time.  Kathleen’s this
person who they know about — there’s a lot about her personal life.  I
don’t think Kathleen knew why she quit until we were making this
documentary.  She was telling herself that she stopped performing
because she had nothing left to say.  But I said, “That’s such bullshit.
Sure!  You have nothing left to say, you’ve said it all.  I’m gonna
hold you to that, you’re gonna sit with me for a year and tell me that
you have nothing left to say.”
How did you decide who
would be telling Kathleen’s story?  There are a lot of people
interviewed in this film, some who worked with her, some who knew her,
some who were just affected by her from afar…

Every time I would tell somebody, I would get a long list of people,
you have to talk to these people.  What was important to me, I was very
clear from the beginning:  I wasn’t looking for opposing stories.  When
it comes up at festivals, that this isn’t a balanced portrait of people
who like Kathleen and don’t.  I wanted to find people who worked with
Kathleen or who were moved by her work.  That’s what I had in mind.  The
only guy in the documentary is her husband, and before we started, a
lot of people expected us to interview the people who were — Ian MacKaye,
Thurston Moore, those guys are awesome, and huge supporters of Kathleen
and the movement, and really radical feminists in their own right, but
their — Tammy Rae Carland, and Becca Albee — were important for me to
talk to.  I wish I could have made a 10 part series.
And how was it spending all this time with the past in the interviews and the edit room?

I was much more into the present day.  As far as going back, that
was really Tamra Davis and Bo Mehrad, they did a lot of reworking and
pulling those sequences out of that performance footage. 

Kathleen go back and asking questions, having her talk about that time
period was super interesting.  Going back through the archival, we
watched a lot of amazing stuff that got caught on tape, including that
footage from Bikini Kill in the UK, which we got from someone — Lucy
Dane — who had caught it and was very generous to let us have it.

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